Friday, August 07, 2009


Summer Luxury

John Keats, On the Grasshopper and Cricket:
The poetry of earth is never dead:
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's—he takes the lead
  In summer luxury,—he has never done
  With his delights, for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost
  Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
  The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
On the genesis of this sonnet see Charles Cowden Clarke, Recollections of Writers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878), pp. 135-136:
But the occasion that recurs with the liveliest interest was one evening when—some observations having been made upon the character, habits, and pleasant associations with that reverend denizen of the hearth, the cheerful little grasshopper of the fireside—Hunt proposed to Keats the challenge of writing then, there, and to time, a sonnet "On the Grasshopper and Cricket." No one was present but myself, and they accordingly set to. I, apart, with a book at the end of the sofa, could not avoid furtive glances every now and then at the emulants. I cannot say how long the trial lasted. I was not proposed umpire; and had no stop-watch for the occasion. The time, however, was short for such a performance, and Keats won as to time. But the event of the after-scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my affectionate regard and admiration for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement. His sincere look of pleasure at the first line—

        The poetry of earth is never dead.

"Such a prosperous opening!" he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines:—

        On a lone winter evening, when the frost
        Has wrought a silence

"Ah! that's perfect! Bravo Keats!"
Here is Leigh Hunt's sonnet composed on the same occasion:
Green little vaulter in the sunny grass,
  Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
  Sole voice that's heard amid the lazy noon,
When ev'n the bees lag at the summoning brass;
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
  With those who think the candles come too soon,
  Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
  One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both, though small, are strong
  At your clear hearts; and both seem given to earth
To ring in thoughtful ears this natural song—
  In doors and out, summer and winter, Mirth.
Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge: Belknap Press; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 121, compares the two:
Hunt's sonnet, considering the time he had to write it, is by no means bad. But what he can do with it is limited from the outset by his focus on the the insects themselves; and needing to fill out the lines and to make them agreeable to human feelings, he is forced to sentimentalize by personifying. The "little vaulter in the sunny grass," and the cricket—"warm little housekeeper"—are "sweet and tiny cousins." And the sonnet drives to a moral at the end: "both are sent" to carry to the thoughtful ear the salutary lesson of "mirth." Keats, on the other hand, typically focuses on a psychological process rather than a moral. The generalization is disposed of at the start ("The poetry of earth is never dead"), and brought back only at the beginning of the sestet in order to introduce the cricket. A simple division in structure gives a frame; and the sonnet can thus become more freely allusive and concrete. The result is a more nearly objective empathy (the grasshopper "rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed") and finally a more genuine resolution—the the blending, or continuity, of summer and winter are frankly left to the listener's imagination.
Katherine Plymley, Grasshopper from Nature Sept. 23rd 1803

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